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Isabella Bird Looks to the Future with Optimistic Plan

At Izzi B, spirits are up. Hopes are enrollment will follow.

Over the past five years, the elementary school near the southeastern border of Central Park has lost 110 students. This year Izzi B (aka Isabella Bird Community School) had 414 students.

Several factors account for the decline, from leadership turnover every two years since opening in 2014, to losing dozens of refugee children from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, to a slight drop in its district rating and an inconsistent culture.

But energetic efforts on the academic, leadership and marketing fronts have school and parent leaders riding a wave of optimism for the next school year.

“It’s like an underdog that is hitting its stride.” said Brian Precious, father of a second grader who is helping to drive that stride. “This is the start of something great.”

                                                                                                                          Isabella Bird Logo

The pros step up.

That positive outlook emerged when parents, concerned about the future of their beloved school, rallied last fall. An ad hoc committee of half dozen parents who are professional marketers, writers, videographers and social media specialists coalesced around boosting enrollment for the 2023-24 school year. The committee’s expertise was especially valuable given it would be the first year the school did any paid marketing.

What’s become the marketing and enrollment committee crafted a marketing plan as if Izzi B was “a company trying to grow its list of customers,’’ said Precious, a committee member and father of a second grader who has his own marketing agency.

They looked at what differentiated Izzi B, what the competitive landscape looked like. They targeted different zip codes south and east of Central Park with messages tailored to those residents.

Part of the school’s attraction, they noted, was that Izzi B has the area’s only fulltime gifted and talented program and the highest percentage of GT students in Denver Public Schools. Those two characteristics result from the fact that all its teachers are immersed in GT practices. It is fundamental to the school’s culture.

They trained parents to do more effective tours for prospective parents, not by a formulaic approach, but more informally to show the character of the school. Tours more than doubled from previous years.

They ran ads in four issues of the local monthly Front Porch newspaper. Another first: paid ads on Facebook. Direct mail pieces went to 5,000 households in both January and February, another first. And they spent nothing from the school’s budget. The school community raised several thousand dollars along with in-kind help with some ads.

“We made sure we were casting a wide net,’’ said Dave Santucci, another marketing pro who’s also one of the leaders of the enrollment/marketing committee.

They even had parents post honest reviews on rating sites, some that still carried negative comments from years ago.

“I’m really proud of what this committee has done,’’ said Santucci, who has a daughter in kindergarten and whose two sons attended Izzi B at different times, including the first year. “It’s much easier to market when you have a great product.’’

Principal Rebecca Mercer agrees.

“We have an engaged and brilliant parent community, the highest level of parent engagement I have seen,” she said.

How did Izzi B get here?

The school opened with a full K-5 complement in 2014. The first principal/assistant principal team stayed for two years. From there, a different pair led the school for two years each. Mercer joined the staff its first year as the GT teacher. She took the top job in 2021.

Revolving door leadership leads to an unstable culture, a staff uncertain of their situations and families lacking the sense of community so essential for success. Mercer says it led to inconsistent approaches to instruction and discipline, behavioral expectations and student wellbeing.

Starting with the first year, Izzi B also had what was called a Newcomer Program designed to support families as they adapt to a strange new country after being uprooted from their own half a world away.

But by 2018 the flow of refugees eased and the school lost at least 60 students all at once. As significant as the numbers were, “it also impacted the heart of our school,’’ Mercer said.

By 2019, Izzi B’s performance rating from the district dropped by a fraction from second highest to third place, or yellow, on the color rating scale of blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Prospective parents were going elsewhere.

With all that commotion, Izzi B began to compare unfavorably to nearby schools that were more stable and higher performing which further hindered enrollment.

Despite the hurdles, Mercer stayed. She knew she had a lot of strengths to build on.

So did parents.

“Rebecca’s leadership and a vision really inspired me to jump in,’’ Santucci said.

Change that is working.

She and her staff have implemented solid, consistent discipline and behavior programs. They use restorative practices that stress relationships, personal accountability and recognition of critical social and emotional needs of children.

They boosted academic expectations. Mercer added fulltime math and reading interventionists to improve achievement in a deliberate way. Teachers also “platoon,’’ by specializing in certain subject areas so students can rotate for better content instruction.

Mercer also began early release days to give teachers sufficient time for professional development that is relevant to their education program.

And that program is grounded in how teachers work with gifted and talented students. Mercer, a former GT teacher, pushes teachers to determine the likelihood of a student doing well in a GT group. Students who are close but do not fully qualify for GT are added to clusters of GT kids in a regular classroom.

At least one teacher at every grade level is certified to teach gifted students which ensures that approach is schoolwide. In addition, all staff are being trained and getting certified in GT teaching practices which takes two years.

That attention to teacher training resonates with parents, Precious said. So does Izzi B’s diversity, he said. The student body is 51% minority and 33% free and reduced lunch, a measure of lower income families, which is highest in Central Park elementaries.

“Izzi B is the most diverse K-5 school in Central Park,’’ Precious said. “We want our kids to be exposed to people who look differently and think differently and have different upbringings and experiences.’’

But they are all one at Izzi B, says Santucci.

“At the end of the day, we’re all Dragons and that’s the coolest mascot there is.’’

 (Editor’s note: The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities produces The foundation has awarded grants to Isabella Bird Community School for education programs and student mental health support and is likely to do so in the future.)  


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